We slept in after all the meat we consumed the night before. The room was so small our beds took up the entire floor (literally, the mattresses were side by side), and the temperature kept changing, so it was a bit hard to sleep. I sound like I’m complaining and I hope I don’t do that constantly. Really, I just complain about small things like this because I have few, if any, more significant problems or challenges. It’s also fun to criticize. But really, the bed doesn’t matter, it’s just a place to sleep, and what’s important are all the experiences. We left late and took the train a couple stops to just south of Ueno, where we found coffee and toast (we didn’t want much more) at a kissaten, Caffe Lapin. Kissaten are old-style coffee shops that are often smoke-filled and traditional. This one was smoke free and friendly, and we sat at the counter and watched the owners (it feels wrong calling them baristas) make our very good pour overs, using water from kettles boiling away on a stove.
It’s striking how quiet the city is everywhere. For the biggest city in the world, the lack of noise is startling. You get car and truck sounds, but not much else. I will also never get over how long the lights are, especially for pedestrians. For a city (and country) that has invested so much into emphasizing public transportation, the pedestrian experience is rough. Many streets don’t have real sidewalks, bikes run you off the road, and the lights are often minutes long. Again, contradictions.
We walked up to Ueno Park, which houses a zoo, a big pond and a number of important Tokyo museums. We walked around Shinobazu Pond, which was pleasant but would be nicer if all the plants weren’t dead and brown. You can take a swan boat out, which only a couple of people were doing. We walked up to the main promenade and to the end, where the Tokyo National Museum occupies a handful of massive buildings. There’s definitely some European influence here (in Tokyo), with British and German and French all melding together. But the dominant foreign influence, of course, is American.
The 2nd floor of the Museum, which I think houses its main exhibit, was closed for cleaning. I love that I can still use my student discount. As far as the museum collection goes, the swords, many with intricate designs, were very cool, and I also really admired some of the ceramics. The main building was stifling hot, a departure from the usual cool, clean air of a museum. I couldn’t spend too long, and the dryness of the layout and exhibits didn’t help.
There was an exhibit on the Ainu and Ryukyu (two native peoples) that left me speechless. It talked about the Ainu in the past tense, as if they were an ancient people long extinct rather than a still existing group of people who have largely been forcibly assimilated into Japanese society. The Japanese really don’t take much accountability (“the Manchurian incident” is what they call the entire invasion of Manchuria in 1931, rather than just the inciting event), is how Jake described it. The framing is so passive.
One thing I found really interesting was the small modern wing, which talked about how Japanese artists wanted to be taken seriously by the West and looked to the Western art world for inspiration (in the late 19th century) but added their own twists, and the thoughts and inspirations of the individual began to appear (which hadn’t before been a concept in Japanese art).
The Asian Art building, housing art from other parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, was no better, and we walked out of the park to check out SCAI the Bathhouse, a contemporary art gallery in a former bathhouse. Google said it was open but I sadly found a building covered head to toe in scaffolding, where a sign told me the gallery is closed for the winter holidays. Such is life in Japan. The space sounded really cool, so that was a small disappointment. We walked back into the park to the National Museum of Western Art. The building was supposed to be cool architecturally; but I found it kind of boring. Neither of us had the stamina to enter, so instead we took the subway to Shimo-Kitazawa, a neighborhood in southwestern Tokyo that I really wanted to explore. We transferred at Shinjuku, which was crowded already at 3:30. But we got seats on the Yamanote loop line for the couple of stops to Shimo-Kitazawa.
We first stopped at Bear Pond Espresso, on a quiet street a couple blocks from the main drag. It was a pretty intense place. The owner is very exact, and according to legend he’s the only one who’s allowed to touch the espresso machine. There’s a strict no-photos policy that I didn’t test. He also has a signature drink, the “angel stain,” that he makes only ten of a day (you have to arrive early and needless to say, we didn’t). I had a “cold brew” that was somewhere between cold brew and iced coffee and very mediocre, but then I tried the Dirty, one of his signature drinks, which is layered cold milk and shots of espresso, in a little ball jar. It was good and really interesting. I almost bought my dad the “Dirty” t-shirt but didn’t. I doubt it would fit anyway.
We walked through the streets of Shimo-Kitazawa, which are lined with vintage shops and cafes. There’s a ton of construction, and it’s clearly a neighborhood in flux. We stopped in Flash Disk Ranch record shop, which sounded like one of the best in Tokyo. The shop owner was helpful and spoke perfect English, and he reminded me of any kind of grouchy but really caring record store owner I’ve ever met. He didn’t have any Blue Hearts or 5678s records, but he had some other Japanese bands that he recommended. He told me about all the bands that used to (and still do) come into his store and hang out and buy records.
The owner was talking to another guy for a while and then asked if I wanted to hear some female punk tonight. Coincidentally, the concert I was planning on happened to be the same show, at Shelter, one of many live houses in the area. Live houses are smaller live music venues in Tokyo, and can be found all over the city, often in basements or other small spaces. They’re concentrated in a few areas, including Shimo-Kitazawa. A live house is different than a club, and mostly features rock, jazz, blues and similar kinds of live music.
The guy he was talking to is S-Ken, the producer for BimBamBoom, the female punk (more like rock mixed with jazz) band, as well as many others. He’s produced 180 records and released 7 of his own, and seems to be fairly influential in the music scene here. He gave me his number and told me to call if I had any problems getting into the show. After the record shop, we tried to buy tickets for Shelter at a Lawson, because apparently you can buy tickets for concerts at Lawson stores, but we weren’t able to figure it out, even after asking a couple of salespeople for help. Fun fact: Lawson began in Ohio but couldn’t make it in the US, even though there are over 14,000 stores in Japan, out of more than 50,000 konbini (mostly 7 Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart).
We walked to Kazenori Merry (it might be called Ushitora 2), on the second floor of a building, for beer and food. The only people inside were two local women, who beckoned us inside and helped us order. The beer comes from Ushitora, next door, where the owner worked and is still involved. He chooses all the beers himself, most of which come from Ushitora and some other local breweries, and a few from the U.S. and Europe (which I didn’t even want to try). I started with the Ushitora AKB 8.4, a really good double IPA (8%) that was just hoppy enough but really flavorful. Then I had the TDM #7 IPA, from Kanagawa, which was very fruity but really tasty. I asked for the Everybody Say IPA, from Hop Kotan in Hokkaido, but it kicked, so I only got a taste.
We also ordered some food. We were in desperate need of veggies so we had some broccoli. I also had tofu oden and the guy gave us radish oden that was his favorite, and quite good. Then we had chicken with yuzu pepper that was reminiscent of the chicken from the yatai in Fukuoka (although nowhere near as good). The last beer I tried was a Brut IPA from Ushitora (Tang Land, 6%) that was among the better Brut IPAs I’ve ever had. The two women talked to us as we ate and drank. Kara, the more talkative one, lived in New York for a while and was born in Hawaii, and I think she was hitting on me until she realized how old we were. Her friend is doing an online MBA at UMass, and wanted to know about the job search. She said that most Japanese graduates have jobs lined up before they leave school. They eventually left and we hung out for a little longer.
I really loved the place, and the owner was so friendly, even with limited English. I had another Brut IPA before heading out, and the place was so local and fun that I almost didn’t want to leave, but we wanted to get to Shelter before the doors opened at 6:15.
It’s a good thing we arrived early because the show was sold out. Luckily, I showed the guy at the door the slip of paper with S-Ken’s name and number on it, and after he went inside, he came back out and ushered us inside, in front of most of the people with tickets. I had expected to pay ¥8000 for the two of us, but they only asked me for ¥3200 and I didn’t complain. S-Ken really came through, and I was so thankful I’d gone to the record store and chatted with the guy. We were so, so lucky, because we really shouldn’t have gotten in.
The venue was so interesting. It’s in a former bomb shelter, and it has maybe room for 100 people, if that, in one open area in front of the stage. People don’t stand as close together at concerts here, which is interesting. I bought some stickers and a CD (I chose their first album over the second solely because I liked the artwork better) while we milled around waiting for the place to fill up and the music to start. I got a drink and to my amazement, a gin and tonic was only ¥300. I could get used to the concert scene here, although I guess the shows themselves are not exactly cheap.
The music was awesome. Shelter is definitely a cool venue, and pretty different from anything I’ve ever experienced. I really enjoyed the music and the place. The BimBamBooms were awesome. Female punk band. Gonna find another band tmrw night. Not much dancing. The crowd was interesting, with more men than women (even though the musicians were female) and an average (median?) age probably around 40. There wasn’t as much dancing as I expected, with people just hanging out and enjoying the music. This side of Tokyo is certainly more lively, more local and more fun. Live houses are cool because the audience is really there to hear the music and have a good time, and nothing else. The total focus is on the performers. The show lasted about 2 hours. I think most nights there are a few performers but this was a one band show, and I think the crowd was filled with pretty serious fans. The band might have made some kind of announcement at the end, but we couldn’t really tell. We made sure to stop by and thank S-Ken again on our way out.
Then we took the train and changed and took it all the way back. It was a long ride, and pretty crowded, but we finally made it. We’re staying all the way on the other side of the city. We stopped at 7 Eleven for rice and onigiri and more. I’m really going to miss the konbinis. They even heat the food up for you. Then we watched a bit of TV before getting to bed.
It feels appropriate that I spent the day at the national museum, with the history and reverence, and then went to hear some local music at a live house, one of the symbols of modern Tokyo.
Ears still ringing,